Last year, in the avidly faithful but ultimately rather flat-footed screen version of The Hunger Games, we saw Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) triumph in a Survivor-meets-gladiator teen war to the death. How did the stoic archeress from District 12 win the Hunger Games? By making herself over into a lethally clever (but never murderous) scamp of the woods. Now it's out of the frying pan and into the even hungrier games. In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss has become a star, a lightning-rod symbol of the early stirrings of a people's rebellion. But she's still the superwarrior girl next door; she wears her rebel impulses lightly, if not politely.
On a Victory Tour of the 12 districts, she and her fellow champion, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), have to carry on the charade that they're in love, and the first sign of Katniss' insurrectionary fever is that she's not very good at faking it. (Or maybe it's just that Hutcherson, with his captain-of-the-cricket-team geek hunkitude, isn't much of an inspiration.) As the two speak, rebel miscreants are subdued by stormtroopers, and the crowds just get angrier. So the ruling powers, led by the velvet-voiced fascist President Snow (Donald Sutherland), figure it's time to nip Katniss and the rebellion in the bud with the Quarter Quell, a special, once-every-25-years edition of the Games in which past winners compete against each other. In other words: It's all badasses. Up on stage with Stanley Tucci's purple-eyebrowed, gleaming-white-smiled Caesar the Ryan Seacrest of Oz Katniss shows off her wedding gown, and the outfit burns down to reveal a stunning black Mockingjay dress. It's the revolution as fashion statement a wink to the masses watching her on TV. But in the presidential lair, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the sinister Games designer, predicts that the blood sport to come will squelch her popularity. He smirks, ''Let's watch her get her hands dirty!''
Yet Katniss Everdeen does not get her hands dirty. She competes in ruthless kill-or-be-killed contests using her speed and wits, but she never has to do anything too ugly or brutal or, for my money, too surprising. There's a ritualistic quality to these films that's key to their appeal, but it also limits their capacity to truly wow us. Catching Fire is more energized than the first Hunger Games movie; it's been directed, by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), with a darkly sustained verve. The Quarter Quell is more openly a contest between Katniss and the Capitol powers, and in its gimmicky way it's more gripping a lethal jungle fun house, with Katniss and her allies facing down a toxic fog, a vicious tribe of baboons, even the arena itself. As newcomer Johanna, Jena Malone delivers her lines with a scene-stealing screw-it-all nastiness, and Sam Claflin nails the role of the wicked-smart former champion Finnick. As for Lawrence, she more than holds her own, turning her face into a dreamy-pale Valkyrie mask. You react to every wave of sadness and fury roiling around inside Katniss, even when Katniss isn't allowed to show it.
Catching Fire is smoothly exciting but a bit of a tease. It gets mileage out of setting up the Quarter Quell as some ultimate Fear Factor version of Deliverance, yet there isn't a moment of real dread in it. The film also sets up Katniss, with her sizzling (in every way) costumes and goth-Cleopatra makeup, as the feral face of revolt, but the cliff-hanger finale reveals that she is, thus far, a passive agent in this revolution. Lawrence plays her as a riveting icon of girl power, but I hope that in the upcoming sequels, Katniss gets to show another dimension or two to go along with her precocious, defiant strength. B